MEDFORD, Ore. — Tensions between union-affiliated public employees and Jackson County administrators working to negotiate new contracts have hit an unanticipated obstacle — the County's ongoing public health response to COVID-19.
Contract negotiations between the two sides reached an impasse near the end of January, with health care coverage representing the most substantial sticking point.
(Photo courtesy Jackson County / Facebook)
Jackson County Public Health officials hold a press conference after two local residents test positive for COVID-19.
At the very beginning of March, SEIU Local 503 said that public employees voted "overwhelmingly" in favor of authorizing a strike, with union members set to meet in order to plan the precise timing of the strike.
Days later, on March 7, state and local public health officials announced that two people in Jackson County had tested positive for COVID-19 — taking the County's public health stance from one of simple preparation and preventative measures against the possibility of coronavirus to active containment and investigation of presumptive cases.
For SEIU 503, and quite possibly for Jackson County's leadership, the timing could not have been worse.
"Our number one concern is providing high quality public services for the people of Jackson County," said Angela Cruthirds, bargaining delegate with SEIU 503. "Our bargaining team is currently working to determine strike details that will ensure there is no impact on public health."
Meanwhile, Jackson County Health & Human Services said that it had "plans in place" to deal with the situation in the event of an emergency.
"This plan is called a Continuity of Operations Plan, also known as a COOP, and looks at how Jackson County HHS will handle a myriad of different situations, be it a staffing shortage or if the buildings become unsafe to work inside," a statement from the agency reads.
SEIU 503 said on Monday that it still had not yet set a date for the strike, and that members wanted County Commissioners and managers to "reach a fair deal" before a potential interruption in the work of public employees.
"The coronavirus shines a spotlight on the County’s failure to provide employees with affordable healthcare," Cruthirds said. "Our union has been in negotiations for over a year. We have been working for more than six months without a contract and with no security about the future of our healthcare plans. Many county employees are still unable to afford basic healthcare and there is a real concern around how a significant outbreak among employees would impact services."
Jackson County HHS' statement said that the agency is working to ensure that it has the resources to perform critical and essential services, regardless of the circumstances.
"If staffing issues arise, regardless of the reasons, Jackson County HHS may respond by reassigning staff as needed or by looking at additional staffing contingency plans," the agency said.
"The best thing the County can do right now to protect public health is to settle this contract, and give us an affordable healthcare plan, so we can remain at work and keep ourselves and this community healthy," Cruthirds said. "Our public health workers are a critical part of the coronavirus response. Employees and their families are part of this community and as such they're at risk as well. Keeping them safe will keep the community safe."